Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: French Renaissance gown



Gathered Kirtle

Gown & Sleeves

updated 2/16/04

updated 3/14/04


I've joined a Renaissance dance group that will be performing in early March and probably also in mid-May (and who knows when in the future), so after many years I finally have a really good reason to make a new Renaissance costume. My old ones are so old they date back to my last paid Ren-Faire participation in Northern California - 1986! Not to mention that I was playing Irish then, and there was no Internet on which to research. So I've been itching to do some really good Ren costuming. Now's my chance.

The brief for the costume from the leader of the group, who isn't herself a serious reenactor, was "1550 to 1570, performing for the court of Elizabeth." Now of course this doesn't entirely make sense, as Elizabeth didn't take the throne until 1558. Then again, she also said it was okay if we ran ahead into the 1580s, as long as we didn't get into wheel farthingales. And although she'd prefer English costume, Italian would be okay too. Really, her main concern is that we appear gorgeous and courtly enough.


My usual approach to the costumes I make for myself is to keep an open mind on the design until a wonderfully appropriate fabric turns up at a good price, and then work the design around that. Of course, after doing enough Internet and book-based Ren costume research to make my eyes bug out, I fell in love with an idea and was going about it the other way: do a design complete with visualized "perfect fabric," then drive myself insane trying to locate said fabric at a price I can afford.

My idea was based on the conviction, formed after looking at as many portraits of 1540-1590 as I could find, that most modern Ren costumers rely far too much on damask and brocade fabric, and jacquard trim, to create the "busy" effect Ren courtiers loved. In period most of that busyness seems far more frequently to have been created with elaborately applied decoration - rows of narrow braid, couched cord, embroidery, pinking, etc. (Of course there are modern exceptions. I was bowled over by Jen Thompson's amazing job of pinking and cording silk for a doublet, and Tammie Dupuis actually makes a lot of her own decorative cord!) This conviction was certainly shored up when I finally got a copy of the Renaissance volume of Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion - the extant clothing shown in it is all a mass of elaborate handwork. And I've found that damask and brocade gowns are actually quite rare in portraits of this period, except for certain Italians.

I also feel that the colors used by modern Ren costumers are not, on average, representative of what I was seeing in portraits, or even in lists of colors popular in the time. Currently I seem to see reenactors in a lot of burgundy, teal, dark blue - rich generic "Renaissance" colors, but not the colors that dominate contemporary portraits and wardrobe accounts. In particular I don't think we see enough black (especially on the middle class!) nor enough of the beautiful pinkish reds derived from madder mixed with other agents - colors called in the time carnation, maid's blush, and even meat (sounds awful, but when you see a certain pinky-red and try to describe it, you understand the choice!).

Now, I'm rereading the above and realize I'm sounding garb-snarky. Please don't get me wrong. I don't for a minute mean to say that there's anything wrong with any person's damask gown, or their gown in burgundy or teal. I'm just saying there are more of them in the mix than period sources would suggest, so I'd like to help right the balance with my own costume.

So anyway, the idea I fell particularly in love with was inspired by the gown of Isabel de Valois, painted by Alonso Sanchez Coello (shown at right, and held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). I don't want to replicate it exactly - the sleeves and partlet are too busy for me, and I don't expect ever to be portraying a princess marrying the king of Spain, so I think the jewels would be a little over-the-top, too. (Look at the size of those billaments! Look at all that stuff on her head!) The fabric of the body of the gown has been interpreted by some as brocade, but when you examine a good reproduction closely it's pretty clear that it's all applied. I'll get more into this later.

However, there's more than one reason you don't see colors like this in modern costumes! Aside from questions of research, one often simply can't find them in the fabric store in appropriate fabrics. And there's a reason you don't see more handwork - it takes forever, and most of us don't have forever. I'd finally gotten to the point where I was going to buy some white silk satin and dye it (with Rit, I'm not up to the madder-and-cochineal stage), which was making me really nervous (it's easy to ruin satin), and I kept finding nice beigey silk damasks when what I needed was cream for the underskirt, or there'd only be a yard of it and I really wanted to make an entire gathered kirtle with its own boned pair of bodies...

It was at this point I realized that this project was getting out of hand, and that I would never get it done by March, especially since I seem to have several commissions piling up. It was also at this point that I found a really fabulous gold-and-garnet silk damask fabric at a price I could (barely) afford (under $15 a yard!). So obviously, it was time to go back to my usual system and let the fabric dictate the project. Since the only 1550-80 English damask gowns I could find were doublet-style, which I didn't want, or only used the damask in the forepart and sleeves; and since the only patterned-fabric French gown I could find was actually made of cut velvet, if not simply bullion embroidery, I decided the only sensible thing to do was go Italian.

On the other hand, I really had been looking forward to a new handwork project (all that couched cord!) and my ooh-I'm-so-period ideas. So my wonderful husband, David, saw how frustrated I was getting and sat me down to talk it out. I always feel guilty about spending money on projects for myself, but he was very supportive about going ahead and doing both projects, not to mention spending a bit more if I found just the right creamy damask for the French gown's forepart (or, I hope, kirtle). Yes, I'd clone him for you if I could. So here's what I'm going to do: I'll go ahead and make my French carnation gown with all its applied decoration; I'll just back-burner it for now. It may take awhile, but it'll be nice to have a non-deadline project to tinker with in between other things.

And of course, now that I've made this decision and stopped being in such a rush, a perfectly colored silk taffeta under $15 a yard has appeared! It's a little lightweight - I'd need to back it - but taffeta would actually be easier to embroider. So, I think I'll snap it up and put it on a shelf where I can see it - it will inspire me to get back to this project as soon as I can.

February 15, 2004: The fabric changes again

It's a costumer's prerogative to change her mind, right? I hesitated over buying the taffeta, and the price had gone up a bit, and then after I put the order in it turned out the seller was on hiatus for two weeks, and meanwhile I finally got a copy of Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd through inter-library loan, and...well, the upshot is, I realized after reading all those wardrobe accounts that taffeta just isn't the right choice. Taffeta was used for linings, and appliques, and petticoats, but there just isn't much use of it for gowns. Satin and velvet, satin and velvet is what you see.

So today I cancelled the order, and instead I'm back to Plan A, dyeing white satin.

I'm going to order heavy pure silk satin from a company in California I've used before, Rupert, Gibbon & Spider. They're the only source I know of for duchesse-weight silk satin under $15 per yard - heck, all the other places charge more like $25 per yard and up for this width. The tradeoff is that this is the cheap Chinese version (although not to be confused with the really thin Chinese satin sold on eBay), so it has two problems: an occasional flaw in the yardage, and a very heavy, stiff warp thread. The occasional flaw is much less of an issue for this gown, since I'll be covering the whole thing with couched braid and cord. The stiff warp thread will only be a problem if I don't plan my cutting right. It causes a couple of issues, the first of which is a mostly-just-annoying tendency to curl up at the widthwise cut edges; more important is that the fabric simply will not ease or gather, and doesn't even much like pleats, across the width. On the other hand, it gathers up like butter along the selvage direction. So this means that if you want to do gathers or small pleats in your skirt, you have to cut the pieces across the grain. Fortunately it's 54" wide, so that's entirely doable.

On the plus side, I've embroidered this fabric before, and it's quite stable - I was able to forgo a hoop, which I was afraid would damage the satin surface, and just steamed and stretched the material afterwards to correct its slight puckering. This bodes well for all that couching and embroidery.

I'm not looking forward to the dyeing, though. I'm afraid I may have to do it in the bathtub - can you dye in a front-loading washer? There's no way to let it fill first! And this heavy satin would be awfully bulky for a pot on the stove. Nonetheless, I've found the Rit Custom Color chart online, and I think what I'm going for is more or less Sea Coral (eighth from the bottom of the list). So I've bought Rose Pink and Tangerine, and we'll see what happens to a test swatch.

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Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.